St Luke’s, Springfield—Matthew 11:2–11
Last week, John the Baptist was on center stage in our readings, and was in the “prime” of his ministry. He was like a good barbecue sauce—bold and sassy. This week, we once again hear about John. Today, however, he’s in jail, a political prisoner of King Herod. But his incarceration is not the main reason John is glum. He’s glum because of an existential crisis, a moment of questioning the entire trajectory of his life. John the Baptist had paved the way, he thought, for a Messiah who would “kick behinds and take names,” and he thought Jesus was going to be that Messiah. But what is Jesus doing? Talking kindly to people, teaching them, and healing those who are sick. Not much laying the axe to the roots of trees there, not much separating grain from chaff, not much burning the chaff in the fire. Did he get it all wrong? Did he miss some key information? So, John sends a couple of his own disciples to go and find Jesus and get right to the point: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Are you the one our master John has been paving the way for, or is that actually somebody else? Because you don’t act much like the Messiah we’ve been expecting.
John had certain expectations about Jesus, certain expectations about how God would act in Jesus, and those expectations were not being met. So he became disappointed and doubtful. And how like John you and I and those around us so often are. We all impose a set of expectations on Jesus, and measure our experience of him against those expectations. Some of us expect Jesus to be a sort of concierge, a fixer of personal problems, someone who will turn the traffic signals in our favor if we’re late for an appointment. And, it turns out, he’s not that. Others might expect Jesus to be a righter of social wrongs, someone who wages war against oppression, and beats down injustice under his feet. But when we look at the gospels, we don’t see a social justice activist or a community organizer. Some might expect Jesus to be a sort of Super Judge who destroys evil and punishes wickedness and vice. We want him to be either a Cosmic Grandfather or a Cosmic Avenger, depending on what kind of mood we’re in. But that’s not the Jesus we actually find in the pages of scripture.
And when Jesus fails to meet our expectations, we get upset. We are disappointed. Very often, this may lead to a crisis of faith, a spiritual rough patch that persists, sometimes for decades. We may not even be conscious of it, but our faith development is stunted, like it hit a brick wall. We seem to never be able to go very deep, and just continue to spin our wheels spiritually. And sometimes, tragically, some people abandon their faith altogether, and quietly drift away from the life-giving community of the church.
When John’s disciples pose his question to Jesus, Jesus doesn’t immediately give the sort of direct, crystal-clear, slam-dunk response that John is looking for—or, truth to tell, the sort of direct answer that you and I would like to hear. In his usual style, Jesus answers indirectly, obliquely. He tells John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Blind people are seeing, crippled people are walking, sick people are well, deaf people are hearing, dead people are alive, and, saving the best for last, perhaps, poor people have hope; they have received good news from the preaching of Jesus and his followers.
Now, compare that to just being an angry prophet announcing God’s judgment and burning chaff in fire. Isn’t what is happening as a result of Jesus’ ministry way better than what John was looking for the Messiah to be and do? This is the message that Jesus wants John’s disciples to take back to him.
And after the messengers are gone, Jesus exploits the opportunity to drive the same point home with those who are around him. I’m going to paraphrase a bit here: “What did you go out to the wilderness to see when John was baptizing? Somebody who lives a comfortable and prosperous lifestyle? No, you went out to see a prophet, right? Because prophets are always interesting, right? Well, he didn’t disappoint, did he, with his camel hair clothing and his crazy diet? But I’m here to tell you, John was even more than you expected, more than you even saw and heard. John was a super-prophet, a hyper-prophet, more of a prophet than you could ever imagine, a prophet who not only meets your expectations, but far exceeds your expectations. And whom was he prophesying about? That’s right—me. So what does that say about your expectations of me?”
Jesus transformed John’s expectations of him in the very act of fulfilling them, in the act of exceeding them. And Jesus transforms our expectations of him in the act of fulfilling them, indeed, in the act of exceeding them. No, Jesus is not your personal concierge, who manages the traffic signals. He’s way more than that. He makes your life mean something. He gives you something to live for, and, if need be, to die for. No, Jesus is not a social justice warrior, because we can look around and still see a lot of injustice. But we know that he is coming again to judge the world in righteousness, and calls us to tirelessly announce the coming of his kingdom of justice, peace, and love. The more we put our trust in Jesus, the more he raises our expectations.
This is a constant process. We can never exhaust our knowledge of God in Christ. It’s a mystery for which there is no “solution;” we peel back one layer, and there’s another layer right there to draw us in deeper. The more we are able to surrender our set expectations of who Jesus is, what Jesus is about, how Jesus is supposed to act, the deeper we are able to go in our spiritual development. The more we are able to let go of our expectations, the more God is able to transform our expectations by exceeding our expectations. There is always a new level of expectation for God to exceed and transform.
Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.